updated 12/28/2008 6:01:05 PM ET 2008-12-28T23:01:05

Television viewers have voted Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — who sent millions to their deaths in the Great Purge of the 1930s — Russia's third-greatest historical figure.

Rights activists have blasted Stalin's inclusion in the 90-day, nationwide project by the state-run Rossiya channel. They say authorities are trying to gloss over Stalin's atrocities and glorify his tyranny.

The project, called "The Name of Russia," culminated with the announcement Sunday night that Russian medieval leader Alexander Nevsky had been voted the greatest Russian, with more than 524,000 Internet and SMS votes. Stalin garnered more than 519,000 votes, and even led in early voting.

Nevsky defeated various European invaders during his 13th-century reign and was subsequently canonized.

Stolypin in second place
In second place was Pyotr Stolypin, a prime minister early in the 20th century under Czar Nicholas II. Stolypin was recognized for land reform but gained notoriety for his brutal quashing of leftist revolutionaries. He saw to it that thousands were hanged for attempting to overthrow the imperial rulers. Stolypin received more than 523,000 votes,

The 12-person shortlist for Sunday's final vote featured various historical heavyweights from writers Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Soviet father Lenin and Ivan the Terrible.

Similar votes have been run by television channels in a number of other countries.

The rules excluded any living person, including Russia's popular ruling tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In presenting Stalin, the project's Web site, http://www.nameofrussia.ru, refers to the terror he imposed, and acknowledges that millions died of starvation and in the large network of hard labor camps he created to punish so-called "enemies of the people" and scare the population into obedience.

It goes on to say, however, that: "For all the defects of the Stalin modernization, it should be recognized that all the tasks set before the country were completed."

Critics of Stalin vote
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki human rights watchdog, has called Stalin's inclusion a "requiem for humanitarian education."

Medvedev and Putin, who was previously president, have faced constant criticism for gradually reintroducing authoritarian policies that many associate with the repressive society of the former Soviet Union.

In the latest such move, a bill that Putin's cabinet submitted earlier this month calls for a redefinition of state treason. If the law is passed by the subservient chambers of parliament, any act or inaction that is considered to have harmed the state can be classified as treason — punishable by 20 years in prison.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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